We celebrated Joe's 64th birthday on August 14 and will be here in Russia for one year August 19. Hence, the one candle on Joe's cake. He said "It signifies the one year we've been here."
To sum up our first year would probably take a lot of space but I will write highlights.
When we arrived last August 19 it was hot and humid. (This summer is even worse with world record heat and wildfires - go figure.)
We were met by 4 missionaries. Elder Brandon Wignall, Elder Carter Holm, Elder David Hepworth, and Elder Jeremy Krause. When we walked out of the airport in St. Petersburg after our 20 some hour flight I made the comment "Ahhh, family!" They were all smiles and welcomed us. We were driven (very fast) to our apartment which is next to the church building. (It seems that all drivers drive very fast, even through downtown). The elders had made up our bed, fixed us dinner, and cleaned up the dishes. They bid us good night and we both went directly to bed and left the unpacking for the next morning.
Joe and I were grateful for our safe arrival, the help of the missionaries, our apartment was nice and cozy and had everything we needed, and grateful to be here on our mission.
The next morning Joe was ready to explore the area and see what our responsibilities are going to be in the office. When I awoke the first thought I had looking at the ceiling was "Well, I'm in Russia for two years. There is no turning back." I begun to cry. For the first 3 months here on our mission, I cried most weekends and missed my family terribly. I looked out our living room window onto the playground that rests in the middle of 4 huge apartment buildings and watched the little children play. I would cry again missing my grandkids. One day I was reading in St. Matthew and was reading about the Sermon on the Mount and when Christ teaches about not worrying where you will be because when your in His service he will take care of all things. I had planned with Joe for 10 years to be on this mission and was losing sight of that goal. Joe didn't suffer from jet lag like I did.
Throughout these first few months Elder Hepworth taught me about my responsibilites in the office. Elder Holm instructed Joe on the financial end of things for a couple of days and then resumed his other responsibilities. In November a lot changed with Joe's job as the Church downloaded a new program that directly linked us to Salt Lake City. So all the work we performed on this program (iMOS - internet Missionary Operating System) was direct time and updated files right away. I began writing up instructions on my job description as I continued to learn. It helped me with checklists and I also want to be able to have a notebook detailing everything to help the next secretary when we leave.
Joe begun a notebook as well. We now have completed spreadsheets and instructions to help the next couple that come next summer.
We learned where the grocery store was that was the cheapest place to shop. It reminds me of a smaller scale WalMart. It takes us a half hour to walk one way. We discovered new muscles walking to and from EVERY WHERE and pulling home carts full of groceries and other items. Tom and Pat Arave helped us our first shopping day (they were the Humanitarian couple). At the Oken (Walmart of Russia) they showed us how to buy produce. After selecting your product you need to take it to a scale and push in the number that corresponds to that item. It prints out a slip you stick onto the product so the cashier can scan your food. We also realized most of our packaged food items would have to be purchase by looking at the picture on the label! This was also a rude introduction to Russia because the shopping cart we had brought along to haul our groceries back to the apartment was stolen. We ended up purchasing two more carts.
During the winter (the coldest in 140 years!) we had a real difficult time pulling carts full of grocery over the snowy, ice packed side walks and streets, so we purchased less items and carried them home in bags. It's also extremely difficult to lift heavy carts onto a bus. The public transportation has a rather tall step up into the bus/trolley and about 3 large steps the rest of the way in. Some newer buses have no steps which makes it real nice to walk right in and barely lift the cart.
We saw a few tourist attractions during the first few months. When we arrived, we told ourselves we would visit more of the museums during the winter and enjoy the outdoor attractions and gardens during the rest of summer/fall. Well, it was so cold we only went out to the store when absolutely necessary and to the office and back. We were pretty much secluded to our apartment. There is only about 5 hours of daylight from December to March. Fortunately the office is only about 30 feet from our apartment building so we didn't have to be out in the cold too long.
To help pass the time we had books, our laptop with internet, and got hooked up with satellite TV that has about 8 english channels. Discovery, National Geographics, Hallmark, CNN International News, and a few others. They are very educational and helped as a diversion when we read about all we could.
We studied the Russian language and prayed we would pick it up living here amongst the people. After one year we know the basic greetings, a few other key words, and how to order food from the little corner store. The smaller stores are different then the large Oken we shop at. It's still designed after the Communist Era in which everything is behind glass cases and you have to order your items. So I had written down the sentence of what we want and replace the product we're needing leaving the rest of the sentence the same. There is a gal that smiles when we come in and has helped with the pronunciation. Joe cheats and takes in the empty carton or package. Everyone tells us though that we've picked up the words real well, sing the hymns well, and know a lot more of the language then most couples. We would like to know more, but it's a very difficult language and probably never will be able to speak fluently. The good thing is that with one Russian word can mean a whole sentence in English. For instance, the Russian word "Skulka" (not spelled that way but typed to read it in English) means "How much does that cost."
We also couldn't believe the short time between seasons. When fall and spring arrive it only last about 3 weeks and the weather changes dramatically. Particularily in the spring - one day thee were no leaves on the trees, the next day they had leaves and the flowers were growing.
Our typical week in the office is Joe making sure the missionaries have money on their MSF cards, and all other expenses, audits, budgets of the mission. He also works closely with Sister Efimova with rentals on all the apartments. (Sister Efimova's husband was the first Russian mission president here in Russia. He died about 10 years ago from a heart attack. He was only 60).
I take care of missionary flights home, letters to parents, bishops, and stake presidents when they're soon to leave for home. I also manage photos and started the mission newsletter again. The mission hadn't had one for a little over a year. I record baptisms and make sure the originals get to Moscow. I maintain files on the missionaries both serving here and the members that have left here to serve missions elsewhere. I also have to apply for a 2nd passport for all U.S. missionaries. Joe and I go together to the U.S. Consulate to drop off the applications and pick up the passport about a week later. We got lost the first time going to the consulate on our own. Joe then looked it up on Google and we were able to find it the next time. (We were shown by the Arave's a couple of times but when we went on our own the first time we got lost.) We are very happy now to know our way around and don't fear being lost any more.
The main tourist street is Nevskiy Prospekt. Walking along this street you look at all the buildings in European-style design. Lots of people from around the world. During the summer there are a lot of tourists. Most Russian women are absolutely beautiful. Whereever you walk you see them dressed like models and wearing high heels. Even in the dead of winter they wore boots with spiky heels. We were told that although most don't have very much money to eat they make sure they look good. During the summer it's a bit difficult walking around and avoiding looking at clothing that are pretty much as short as possible and see through.
We have to renew our visas every 3 months. We normally go to Narva, Estonia (a 3 hour car ride one way). Our first trip was the end of October. When we arrived with a few other missionaries it was 6:30 a.m. and we had to stay outside until 10 a.m. when the stores and restaurants opened. We were sooooo cold. Elder Wignall knew the number of a couple of missionaries so he called them and we hung out at their apartment until 10. We were so grateful. Since then the mission president said we can no longer do that. We are still trying to figure a way of making things work better for us missionaries that have to stand outside in the cold (or hot) while waiting for businesses to open. (This is for the first group of missionaries that have to get their visas renewed.) The reason for the wait is that the driver that takes us there from St. Petersburg and has to take a bus to Tallin to the consulate there to pick up everyone's 2nd passports with the new visa in it. It is about a 6 hour round trip on the bus. He brings back everyone's passport that will have to go to Narva over the next several days. We all don't go at the same time. So the next groups will already have their 2nd passport with the new visa in it and they just have to leave Russia and go into Estonia, turn around and go back through the Estonia border showing the 2nd passport and walk over the bridge to the Russia border and reenter Russia. No long waiting outside.
This March we were surprised to learn that we could go with the mission president and his family to Helsinki, Finland because they renew their visas there and we went to the temple. The temple is quite beautiful. There is also a church hotel there that we stayed at. It has a very large common kitchen/dining hall. There are numerous refrigerators that has room numbers on the front. So depending on what room your staying at you put your food in that refrigerator. The rooms have 4 sets of bunk beds. The men and women sleep in different rooms - separate from each other. They also provide towels, soap, etc. We just took an overnight bag and food.
This is Joe's and my first time living alone. No kids, or grandkids. When we married and brought our families of 11 together and held 2 careers most days it was nothing less then chaotic. Each child had their own set of problems and we each had a lot to work through from our past. So, that being said, it's the first time to really discovery each other. There is very little if no stress here on our mission. We've focused on what we love - each other, our family, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. We've made so many mistakes in parenting and other things. But we've also become so much closer and more wise. We have changed in so many ways and will have different relationships with our family members and with each other when we get home. We hope that through our mistakes of the past and our new found understanding we can be more beneficial to our kids and grandkids.
We love the people here that we serve and worship with. Russian people are very hardworking and most very poor. They work very hard but for very little money. We know of a branch president who is a neurosurgeon stated that when he earned his degree his pay was increased by 500 rubles a month! (That is only about $15 a month U.S.) He said that public transportation drivers makes more then he does.
We have seen quite a few drunk people passed out on the streets and one time a dead person at a bus stop near the consulate. It looked like he had been a bad fight. There have been other occasions particularly after holidays when we have seen blood in the hallways and sidewalks. It's extremely sad to see the lifestyle of some people - especially children. A lot of children suffer physical abuse because their parents suffered the same and discipline their children such. The main idea about marriage is you don't marry - you live together to see if it works out first. The gospel has literally changed the lives of people. In the way they see life and gives them hope of a brighter future. They are taught about good parenting and loving yourself and others.
In addition to our office responsibilities we have been asked to give talks in our branch, other branches, and the Institute. We taught the marriage relationships class and have recently been asked to visit one of the more distant branches outside the city. It is a three-hour ride by car to get there. Joe has also been called to be second counselor in the Elder's Quorum presidency. We have also on occasion been asked by the missionaries to assist with discussions particularly with English-speaking investigators. Joe has conducted and or presided at some of the convert baptism's.
What we anticpate for this next year. Having an opportunity to serve the members more and help share the gospel with the younger missionaries to those who are investigating the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. We both have a firm testimony that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is Christ's Church. That His gospel that he taught when he first walked upon the earth has been restored as has the Priesthood and that all God's children can come to know Him and know how to receive revelation and truth for each of their own salvation to live in His presence when we leave this mortal existence.
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